The sentiments expressed by teachers who are subjected to lecture-based professional learning should provide all the common sense evidence we need – humans do not learn best, are not motivated, are not engaged, and are not too happy when they’re talked at for extended periods of time. And yet, we still do it to students, in classroom after classroom, year after year.

A common sense commitment that we have made in our district is to ensure that every professional learning opportunity we have with our colleagues models the active pedagogies, strategies, and activities that we ought to see in the classroom with students. It’s a start.

It’s a relatively simple idea: When students are required to – when they are allowed to – think about a problem/situation/task, talk about a problem/situation/task, and actively participate in the problem/situation/task, then students are much more likely to find relevance in what’s happening in the classroom, care about what’s happening in the classroom, and remember what happened in the classroom tomorrow and “for the test.”

Classrooms today too often look like the classrooms of 1950. For every classroom in which students take advantage of flexible seating options and teachers guide the learners of student groups from multiple locations in the room, there is at least one classroom in which students are seated in rows and the teacher lectures from a podium. Sit and get is still a strategy much too common in schools.

Teachers are still too often directing the learning; they are too often the only members of the classroom community thinking and doing (and I don’t think we can count listening, thinking, taking notes, copying problems and solutions as doing).

Teachers are working much harder than they should be. Student engagement, energy, and motivation will remain lower than we’d like when teaching take priority of learning.

I was in a classroom recently in which the teacher had assigned a task and allowed for student interaction. Students were working with one another, making sense of problems and arriving at solutions together. And, students were (still) sitting in rows. The lengths to which students went to collaborate with one another were awkward, even humorous, stretching across the aisles to examine each other’s work and make suggestions on next steps. Imagine the improvement to the student experience and in student learning if students had been seated in cooperative groups and given guidance on how to collaborate with one another – on how to take ownership of their learning.

Of course, balance matters. There will still be opportunities when the teacher metacognitively models the thinking and problem solving needed to successfully engage in or complete a task. But this modeling need not always occur at the beginning of the lesson and it need not occur for the entire lesson. There may still time during which students sit in rows, but seating arrangements and classroom environments that promote collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking must increasingly be the norm.

It might be more efficient to lecture at students and we will certainly be able to get through more content, but student learning, engagement, and motivation will suffer. There’s another way, a way that makes common sense: People will learn more when they’re engaged. They’ll be more engaged when they are actively involved in their learning.

A key element of active learning is students collaborating with peers; Lev Vygotsky (1956) validated this notion over a century ago. Learning is social, and students learn more when they listen to peers, process the information that peers have shared, and rehearsed their emerging understandings with peers.

Observational and evaluative frameworks and protocols are gaining in popularity as educators recognize the impact of actively engaged students on behaviors, motivation, and learning. Several of Charlotte Danielson’s domains within her Framework for Teaching reference student interactions with other students and engaging students in learning (Danielson, 2008); Marzano’s Instructional Framework (2017) also emphasizes engagement. Bill Daggett’s Rigor and Relevance Framework (2016) describes quadrants of learning – Quadrant Four is where students are doing the thinking and the work.

AJ Juliani and John Spencer (2017), authors of Empower, build the case for students taking a more active role in their learning and provide concrete examples about how to do this. Trevor MacKenzie (2016) describes how classrooms can foster inquiry mindsets. Spencer Kagan (2009) has provided concrete strategies for engaging students in active, cooperative learning for decades. The National Research Council’s (2000) comprehensive study, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, describes how learning, and what we’re learning for, have changed, encouraging the design of learner-centered environments and the importance of greater student involvement with one another and with the tasks that they are assigned. This analysis was seconded by David Sousa and Carol Ann Tomlinson in Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-Friendly Classroom (2011; 2018). Finally, when students are actively involved in their learning, they are provided with the opportunity and the need to regulate their learning. Self-regulation is a skill that contributes to higher levels of student learning and a set of skills that students must have the chance to put into action in school, a notion researched by Barry Zimmerman among others (Zimmerman, 2001; Zimmerman, Bandura, & Martinez-Pons, 1992).

In summary, research and best practices increasingly emphasize that students learning mathematics should think and act like a mathematician; that students learning art should think and act like an artist; that students learning science should think and act like a scientist; that students learning history should think and act like a historian. I could go, but the point is that students should be more active in the classroom and their learning.


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